Franchise Expansion (Or Implosion): ‘Mortal Kombat’ (1995)

by Ben Martin

Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)

To say video game adaptation adaptations are not a respected movie subgenre would be putting it lightly. However, one franchise born out of arcade cabinets and controversy proved that audiences want to see game-based movies for better or worse: Mortal Kombat. A franchise that remains so popular on consoles that it’s received a hardcore, big-screen reboot. Before we get there, though, let’s go back to the 1990s when Hollywood initially engaged in Mortal Kombat (1995)!

If you were around in the 90s, then you probably not only played Mortal Kombat (1992), you also saw it take pop culture by storm. Arguably the first time a video game had done so since Super Mario Bros. (1985). And, just like Mario before it, Mortal Kombat changed the landscape of video games. Specifically, it was (and remains) the most innovative fighting game around. But, how did this game of brightly-colored and bloody ultra-violence come to be?

Chicago-based developer Midway Games developed the game as an arcade fighter intended to compete with Capcom’s Street Fighter II (1991). Initially, the game was to be an adaptation of the 1988 Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle, Bloodsport. Alas, Van Damme would not approve the use of his likeness. Thus, Midway pivoted into making an original fighting game. Predicated on an idea by game developers Ed Boon and John Tobias, the game follows various fighters gathered for a deadly tournament in which their respective fights will determine the fate of their worlds. Like the Street Fighter video games series before it, Mortal Kombat  features colorful characters with special moves. But, what gave Mortal Kombat an edge was the graphics, which were developed through motion capturing performances of martial artists and actors. The technique also made for more unique game mechanics. 

Beyond those technical differences, Mortal Kombat was also much more violent and bloody than its predecessors in the fighting game genre. Such content, of course, made the game an immediate hit upon its release to arcade cabinets in 1992 and consoles soon after. It’s important to remember that video games, up to that point, were not terribly violent. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the game’s popularity was met with controversy which led to parental and media groups raking the game over the coals. Moreover, Mortal Kombat and the controversy it spurred ultimately led to the formation of the Electronic Software Ratings Board (ESRB) in 1994, a mere two years after the game’s release. 

Not that a rating or parental warning deterred the popularity of the ever-growing MK franchise, mind you. On the contrary, Mortal Kombat II (1993) followed a scant year after the original game’s release. By the time Mortal Kombat 3 was released in 1995, the series was at the apex of its popularity, making its way into all possible ancillary markets of merchandise, toys, comics, a live touring show, and of course, a movie adaptation for the big screen!

Despite the game’s popularity, though, it wasn’t movie studios who initially pursued the prospect of making the Mortal Kombat into a movie. (Quite the juxtaposition from how the movie industry operates these days.) After playing the first two games, producer Lawrence Kassanoff (Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go to College, True Lies) snatched up the film rights from Midway Games and presented the property to New Line Cinema. The studio was admittedly hesitant to put money into a video game adaptation following the disappointing returns and reception other studios had experienced with Super Mario Bros. (1993) and Double Dragon (1994). But thanks to the popularity of the arcade cabinets, home versions, and ancillary material, Kassanoff won out as New Line ultimately decided to move forward with this adaptation.

In doing so, the studio had their sights set on making this adaptation a big-budget, star-studded affair. Rumor is they had approached the likes of Tom Cruise (Top Gun: Maverick) to star. Although, I’m sure how New Line would meet the salary quote of any movie star considering Mortal Kombat only had an allotted production budget of $18 million. Perhaps they thought they could harness star power by saving on the fee they paid fresh-faced director Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil, Monster Hunter), who only had his debut indie feature Shopping (1994) under his belt at the time. Following Anderson taking the helm, the ambitious casting attempts continued as Van Damme again refused to engage in Mortal Kombat when he turned down the opportunity to play Johnny Cage. (A character who the martial artist/actor inspired.) Instead, Linden Ashby (Iron Man 3) took what was intended to be the lead role of Cage. 

Then there’s the key character of Raiden. Because no one involved in the production was thinking along the lines of accuracy and cultural inclusion, the late-great Sir Sean Connery was offered the role. Upon Connery turning the part down, it went to his Highlander (1986) and Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) co-star Christopher Lambert (because appropriately casting an Asian gentleman in this role did not occur to Hollywood in the 90s). On the upside, though, Lambert was purportedly a calming veteran presence on-set. Furthermore, they had enough sense to cast Asian-American actor Robin Shou (Beverly Hills Ninja) as Liu Kang, who is, ultimately, the main protagonist in this flick.

Then, of course, there’s the female lead of Sonya Blade. Hot off another New Line hit with The Mask (1994), Cameron Diaz was originally cast as the bad-ass character. Unfortunately, Diaz broke her wrist while doing martial arts training during pre-production. As a result, the rising star was quickly replaced by Bridgette Wilson (Last Action Hero). Playing Sonya Blade was on-brand for Wilson as she made a career out of playing intelligent, though supporting parts at this point in the 1990s. While Wilson certainly lacks Diaz’s acting chops, it’s worth noting that she did her own stunts in the film — although, she did sustain a minor shoulder injury during production. Alas, every cast member in this film is as stale as week-old Wonder Bread when it comes to anything that doesn’t involve physicality.

Taking structural cues from both the video games and the martial arts genre classic Enter the Dragon (1973), screenwriter Kevin Droney‘s script for the big-screen adaptation is quite faithful to the game on which it’s predicated. The film follows a trio of martial artists (Liu Kang, Johnny Cage, and Sonya Blade) who are unwittingly drawn into competing in a tournament where losing will prove fatal. And as if that isn’t enough pressure, the outcome of the Mortal Kombat tournament will determine in the fate of the world! It’s also worth noting that the initial screenplay for the film was as violent as the game on which it was based and no doubt would have garnered an R-rating. However, the studio demanded a PG-13 rating for the movie; otherwise, the kid and teenage fans of the game would not be able to see the film. Obviously, this led to the underwhelming fights we get in the finished picture. But, I must admit that I understand where New Line was coming from.

But just because the filmmakers were contractually obligated to deliver a flick that a wider audience could see — and skimp on the blood and gore — didn’t mean they would divert the source material’s tone. To this point and the credit of Anderson and his crew, they manage to do that here! Tonally, this adaptation is the fantastical B-movie it should be and brings the world of Mortal Kombat into the cinematic medium. The cinematography, costume, and production design are entirely successful in translating the game environments from bits to frames of film. Unfortunately, though, the visual and special effects are lacking, even when the film was released. 

For everything it gets right, Mortal Kombat fails in two areas in which no martial arts flick should, even if it’s based on a video game. First and foremost, this movie has significant pacing problems. Despite kicking off with all the energy of The Immortals’ iconic Techno-Syndrome, it becomes quickly evident that there are big lulls of boredom following the film’s first act. In turn, this dullness creates the second issue as it also plagues the fight sequences here; all of which are largely lackadaisical in their execution of choreography and photography. (Although, these matches are still staged better than any of the fights in The Dark Knight Trilogy.) The cold, hard fact is, though, that no martial arts picture can afford to have lame fights, and unfortunately, this movie does.

Even still, Mortal Kombat has proven to be one of the more shining examples of the video game adaptation subgenre for all its flaws. Despite the restrictions placed on this adaptation, the director’s lack of skill with evoking better performances from his cast, and stronger fight scenes, this flick is largely faithful to its source material. For this reason, Mortal Kombat is certainly a Franchise Expansion. I believe that, given the opportunity, all the elements well executed in this film could’ve been pushed further in its sequel.

Then again, why would the studio allow that when this adaptation was highly successful thanks for being a part of the pop culture zeitgeist in the mid-90s. Mortal Kombat grossed $23 million on its opening weekend and went on to earn a worldwide total of over $122 million on that meager $18 million production budget. Such box office returns also made the movie the fourth highest-grossing video game adaptation to date. Beyond these numbers, the film also spawned many money-making ancillary products, including a Platinum-selling soundtrack, the animated prequel Mortal Kombat: The Journey Begins (1995), and the short-lived cartoon series done in that same style — Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm (1996). Therefore, a sequel was inevitable.

Wanting to go into production on a follow-up as soon as possible, New Line immediately offered Anderson the chance to return to helm the sequel. Thankfully, though, the director chose to parlay his success into his best flick yet with Event Horizon (1997). The same can be said of this cast, who did not reprise their roles in the sequel except for Shou. Interestingly enough, though, Linden Ashby and his castmates said they had deals in place to return, which were ultimately not honored. Although, Ashby did later voice Johnny Cage in the video game series with Mortal Kombat 11 (2019). Thus, we will get a sequel with an essentially new cast and crew.



GET (BACK) OVER HERE” next time for Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997)!

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